Erik Scavenius

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Erik Scavenius
Erik Scavenius.jpg
Prime Minister of Denmark
In office
9 November 1942 – 29 August 1943
Monarch Christian X
Preceded by Vilhelm Buhl
Succeeded by German military rule
(next Prime Minister: Vilhelm Buhl)
Personal details
Born (1877-07-13)13 July 1877
Klintholm, Møn
Died 29 November 1962(1962-11-29) (aged 85)
Gentofte
Political party Danish Social Liberal Party

Erik Julius Christian Scavenius (13 July 1877 – 29 November 1962) was the Danish foreign minister from 1909–1910, 1913–1920 and 1940–1943, and prime minister from 1942 to 1943 during the occupation of Denmark until the Danish elected government ceased to function. He was foreign minister during some of the most important periods of Denmark's modern history, including the First World War, the plebiscites over the return of northern Schleswig to Denmark, and the German occupation. Scavenius was a member of the Landsting (a chamber of the Danish parliament) during 1918–1920 and 1925–1927 representing the Social Liberal Party. He was chairman of its party organization from 1922–1924.

Scavenius belonged to a tradition of elitist governance that distrusted democratically elected politicians at a time when they were gaining power and influence and he was frequently in conflict with more populist figures. He thought that many of these elected politicians were influenced by ignorant strains of populism, and were ill equipped to face the tough compromises and realities of governance. For example, during the negotiations over the return of territory to Denmark following the First World War he advocated a more cautious approach than many more nationalistic figures. His policy of accommodation and compromise toward the Nazi occupation authorities in Denmark during the Second World War is one of the enduring controversies of Danish history; some see it as a necessary compromise to protect the Danish state and people, while others see it as unnecessarily accommodating of totalitarian Nazi Germany.

Biography[edit]

The Scavenius family belongs to the Danish Nobility. It was family tradition to work as a diplomat. Erik Scavenius graduated in economics in 1901. Soon after, he became employed in the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was a secretary at the Danish Embassy in Berlin 1906–1908, a time forming his emphasis upon the primacy of Danish-German relations. Next, he became head of section in the ministry. He was an envoy to Vienna and Rome 1912–13 and to Stockholm 1924–32. From 1932 to 1940 he was chairman of the board of the major daily Politiken. Scavenius was the owner of a large estate 1915-1946. After 1945 he experienced marital and economic difficulties.

The appointment of the only 32 year old head of section Scavenius as minister of Foreign Affairs in the Social Liberal cabinet 1909–10 came as a surprise. He was reappointed when the party formed another cabinet 1913. During World War I he strongly put his efforts into the continuation of "the German course", a policy of keeping Denmark out of conflict with the neighbouring great power through adaptation of its demands. Among other things he supported giving in to the German demand to mine the Danish straits in August 1914.

Scavenius was also an important figure as foreign minister during the negotiations surrounding the return of South Slesvig to Denmark following the war. Scavenius was one of the chief advocates of the Danish government's official position, advocating a return of only territories with clear Danish majorities. This was opposed to the more "maximalist" position which demanded a return of all previously Danish territories south to the "Danevirke".[1]

Occupation of Denmark[edit]

Erik Scavenius (left) with German plenipotentiary of Denmark, Dr. Werner Best.

Erik Scavenius became foreign minister again during most of the German occupation of Denmark. As such he was the most important liaison between the Danish government and the German authorities. In addition he was prime minister for some of the war as head of a coalition cabinet after the Telegram Crisis. He was more of a professional diplomat than an elected politician, and he held an elitist approach to government. At this time, the Social Liberal Party did not consider Scavenius to be a representative of it, even though the party accepted his line along with the other coalition parties.

Scavenius was very afraid that emotional public opinion would destabilize his attempts to build a compromise between Danish sovereignty and the realities of occupation. He felt strongly that he was Denmark's most ardent defender. After the war there was much recrimination of his stance, particularly from members of the active resistance who felt that he had hindered the cause of resistance and threatened Denmark's national honour. He felt that these people were vain, seeking to build their own reputations or political careers through emotionalism.

After 29 August 1943, Erik Scavenius lost all of his real powers when the German authorities dissolved the Danish government following the refusal of that government to crack down on unrest to the satisfaction of the German plenipotentiary. His cabinet resigned in 1943 and suspended operations. The resignation was never formally accepted by the King so the cabinet existed de jure until a new one was formed following the liberation on 5 May 1945. Scavenius was politically isolated after 1945 but the parliamentary commission on misconduct during the Occupation did not find reason to impeach him for the High Court of the Realm for mal-administration of office in its report from 1955. Scavenius had vehemently defended his policies before the committee and in his memoirs over the Occupation years from 1948 (The negotiation policy under the Occupation. Forhandlingspolitikken under Besættelsen).

Legacy[edit]

Debate continues over Scavenius' legacy and he remains one of the most controversial figures in the history of Danish politics. For example, on the 60th anniversary of the 29 August dissolution of government, prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen chastised his predecessor for his stance, saying that it was naive and morally unacceptable.[2] However, historians like Bo Lidegaard and Søren Mørch contend that it was only through Scavenius' policies that Denmark escaped the worst hardships of the war.[3] Bertel Haarder, then a minister in the Rasmussen government, rebutted Lidegaard's theory in 2005, calling it revisionist and arguing that Scavenius carried out an unnecessarily pro-German policy, which was not popular, dishonourable, and an unjustifiable long-term strategy given the fact he thought Germany would likely win the war.[4]

A proposal to rename a street named after Aksel Larsen, founder of the Socialistisk Folkeparti, in the former PM's honour, was deemed too controversial to go through with by the Copenhagen Board of Street Names in 2012.[2]

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
William Ahlefeldt-Laurvig
Foreign Minister of Denmark
1909-10-28–1910-07-05
Succeeded by
William Ahlefeldt-Laurvig
Preceded by
William Ahlefeldt-Laurvig
Foreign Minister of Denmark
1913-06-21–1920-03-30
Succeeded by
Henri Konow
Preceded by
Peter Rochegune Munch
Foreign Minister of Denmark
1940-07-08–1943-08-29
Succeeded by
German military rule
(next Foreign Minister: Vilhelm Buhl)
Preceded by
Vilhelm Buhl
Prime Minister of Denmark
1942-11-09–1943-08-29
Succeeded by
German military rule
(next Prime Minister: Vilhelm Buhl)
Party political offices
Preceded by
Anders Larsen
Chairman of the Danish Social Liberal Party
1922–1924
Succeeded by
Niels Peter Andreasen

References[edit]

  1. ^ Lidegaard, Bo (2011). En fortælling om Danmark i det 20. Århundrede (in Danish). Copenhagen: Gyldendal. p. 98. 
  2. ^ a b Lemhag, Linn (8 December 2012). "Who is ... Erik Scavenius?". The Copenhagen Post. Retrieved 9 December 2012. 
  3. ^ Stenstrup, Brita (8 November 2003). "Kampen om Scavenius' eftermæle (The fight for Scavenius' Legacy)". Berlingkse Tidende (in Danish). Retrieved 14 February 2013. 
  4. ^ Bertel, Haarder (21 September 2005). "Nye myter om samarbejdspolitikken (New myths about the "cooperation policy")". Information (in Danish). Retrieved 14 February 2013.